The Last Place
A Few Days in Europes
Least Visited Country
Story & photos by James Boitano
from the Cosmos Hotel. Gritty,
but lots of fresh air
a biased traveler. Having fallen in love with Europe on my first trip
to Italy with my father as a 14 year old, it is to this continent that
my travel plans always seem to lead. I return to somewhere in Europe
now every May to see old friends and favorite cities. But with each
trip, I have a firm goal: to fit in at least one new country every year.
With 2016 being my 28th trip to Europe, Im getting
close to the bottom of my list of unvisited countries. And this brings
me inevitably to Moldova.
Poor Moldova. Largely unknown, way out of the way and
saddled with a dowdy unglamorous name, its Europes least
visited and poorest country. On the International
Monetary Funds ranking of GDP per capita, Moldova ranks a
lowly 138th out of 186 countries, right between Nicaragua and India.
Yes, India. And even I, the Europhile traveler have ignored it until
Chişinău may not
be Paris, but it is the Paris
Moldova is an unlikely little country. About the size
of Maryland, its three-million people are tucked in a landlocked wedge
of land between Romania
not exactly on the London, Paris, Rome
circuit. The territory is a slice of land the Russians pried away from
their many wars of territorial conquest from the Turks and then added
it to Mother Russia. Largely Romanian speaking, it probably should have
ended up as part of Romania, but under the Soviet Union it achieved
full republic status.
Moldova didnt have much to offer Russia other
than their fantastic wines, but that was fine for Moldova as part the
biggest empire on Earth. But when the Soviet Union fell apart, Moldova
found itself one of the least likely and most hapless sovereign states
in the world. With two civil wars, much civil unrest, a complete collapse
of the economy, Moldova still stands 25-years later. With Romania and
the European Union trying to pull them to the West, and Russia holding
their energy bill and pulling them towards the East, they are in a state
of constant conflict and schizophrenia.
Moldovan souvenirs which
demonstrate a bit of Soviet Nostalgia
But with all that said, I really enjoyed my little four-day
visit there this May. I experienced four-days of fantastic food, warm
people, hassle-free travel and some of the cheapest prices I have ever
seen in all my travels. I jetted in to their nice new airport on Lufthansa
and paid a staggeringly low $5.00 for my taxi ride to the capital. I
bet you cant name the capital of Moldova. Thats right, its
(formerly Kishinev under the Russians), but even geography pros have
trouble with that one.
I stayed at the Cosmos
Hotel. During the times of the Soviet Union, the capital of every
Republic had a monstrously ugly hotel for foreign visitors on Intourist
package tours. The Cosmos was just that place. And like nearly everything
else in Moldova, it looks like nothing had been done to it since 1980.
And yet, despite the dreadful décor and Stalinist era ambiance,
my room was perfectly clean and comfortable, the staff (like everyone
else in Moldova) was extremely kind and helpful. And four nights with
a balcony and breakfast for a total of $120.00 was astonishingly cheap.
Friendly Moldovans at their Arch de Triomph, in
front of the parliament, proudly displaying their flag
Leading from the hotel is Chisinaus main avenue
on or near which its major attractions are all found: the national parliament,
the vibrant market, their little arch de triomphe, the national museum,
the orthodox cathedral, a bank, the post office, a café. I must
have walked that street from my hotel 13 times in four days: not that
it was so interesting, but because there wasnt so much else to
A $5.00 lunch with the obligatory polenta and wine
But I wasnt unhappy to find myself there. Every
meal (served with polenta their national staple and with wine
their national treasure) was better than most meals I ever find
in America and rarely cost more than $5.00. People smiled at me kindly.
I liked that. And despite an undeniable amount of grittiness, the plethora
of lovely and vibrant parks gave the city a benevolent dignity.
Moldova has had hard times, but you wouldnt know
that on a Sunday afternoon strolling in one of their verdant parks.
Each one was filled vibrantly with happy families and children, laughing
on kiddie rides, eating ice cream and cotton candy, smartly dressed,
and looking happy. The measure of a country is more in its people and
less in its GDP. How do they rise to hard times and still seem so happy,
so together and connected. Maybe there is something to learn from them
and thats the real glory of travel. So Im quite pleased
I went to Moldova and not just to tick off another country off my list.
Im glad I met these fine Moldovans with their kind and resilient
spirit. I dont regret for a minute the four tranquil days
I spent among them.
So now, how in the world will I ever make it to Belarus?
More Than Vamping through Transylvania; Backdoor
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St. Petersburg: A Tale of Two Cities; The
Balkans: Lovely States of Mind and Meanderings...